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More young people are being diagnosed with cancer

By The Health News Team | October 27, 2023
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In August of last year, the results of a study that found cancer diagnoses increased substantially among young people between 2010 and 2019 was published. More than 560,000 people in the U.S. were noted to have early-onset cancer — cancer diagnosed before age 50 — with the findings highlighting an increase in several types of cancers in females including cancers of the uterus and breast.

In fact, breast cancer represented the greatest number of early-onset cases in 2019. And gastrointestinal cancers, which include colon and stomach cancer, represented the fastest growing type of cancer.

“Anecdotally, it seems like we are seeing more and more young people with cancers,” says Dr. Andrew Bruggeman, a board-certified radiation oncologist and internal medicine doctor affiliated with Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center. “This is most particularly notable with breast cancer and colorectal cancers.”

While the findings are obviously troublesome, they also stand out because cancer is often assumed to be an illness that mostly affects older adults. However, cancer diagnoses actually decreased among people age 50 and older during the same period.

Possible causes for early-onset cancer

Researchers were unable to definitively say why cancer is increasing among younger people. Although, they believe the following are likely contributing factors:

  • Increasing incidence of obesity

  • Changes in environmental exposures, such as smoke and gasoline

  • Changes in sleep and physical activity patterns

  • Changes in human microbiota, the trillions of bacterial cells found primarily in the gut

  • Exposure to cancer-causing substances, such as cigarettes

“It’s hard to pin down exactly what is contributing to the rise in cancer diagnoses among young people in the recent decades,” Dr. Bruggeman says. “There is always going to be a percentage of those that are driven by genetic risk factors, so it is important for patients to be aware of their family history of cancer and take appropriate screening measures if they have a risk of cancer.”

Maintain your health with screenings and lifestyle choices

Fortunately, according to Dr. Bruggeman, both breast and colorectal cancer have good screening options. There is an option to start screening at age 40 for breast cancer in women, and the recommendation to start screening for colorectal cancers at age 45. If you have familial or other high-risk factors, your doctor may recommend you start screening earlier.

What’s more, there are cancer risk factors you can control by making healthy lifestyle choices.

“My recommendations for decreasing the risk of cancer are to quit smoking if you are a smoker and avoid second-hand smoke exposure,” Dr. Bruggeman says. “Additionally, it’s best to maintain a healthy diet, limit alcohol intake and exercise regularly, with the goal of maintaining a healthy weight with a BMI between 20 to 25.”

It is also important to talk with your doctor about any changes in your health, Dr. Bruggeman says. Your primary care provider is your partner in maintaining your health and wellness, and can ensure you receive the care you need, which includes advising you when screenings or a visit to a specialist may be necessary.

Learn more about cancer care at Sharp; get the latest health and wellness news, trends and patient stories from Sharp Health News; and subscribe to our weekly newsletter by clicking the "Sign up" link below.

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